The popularity of traditional body formats might be waning. But the good old bakkie stands strong in the face of newfangled genres like the crossover. And we South Africans love our bakkies – looking at the sales figures of any given month in a year affirms this. One can easily understand why. These do-it-all pick-up trucks quite literally keep the wheels of the country turning.
They are faithful companions to members of the agricultural sector. They serve as resilient workhorses to enterprises. And at the weekend, they are amply equipped to deal with the demands of family life. Nowadays, manufacturers are striving to produce compact trucks that emulate the characteristics of an SUV. They vie for a plush ride quality, a refined cabin, up-to-date infotainment systems and powertrains that feel more car-like. We assembled four of the most prominent competitors in this league of legends, in a bid to find out which best pulls off the Swiss Army Knife balancing act.
A QUICK NOTE ON THE CONTENDERS
The Toyota Hilux needs no introduction, enjoying sales supremacy since being introduced in the late 1960s. Actually nor does the Ranger, despite being a relative Johnny-come-lately, joining the fray in the early noughties. The young American supplanted the Hilux from a sales perspective on many occasions since December 2014. Albeit competent, the Isuzu KB and Volkswagen Amarok appear to be outliers on the charts. While the former pair are either consistently number one, or in the top five at the very least, the latter duo find themselves towards the back of the ranks. For this report we opted for the derivatives geared towards the lifestyle market. In other words, buyers who want car-like virtues in addition to the ability to haul lots of stuff and drive over pavements.
The oldest of the bunch is the Volkswagen Amarok. When it arrived on the scene in 2010 the Amarok wowed with its upscale character. It was a tailored safari suit in a world of two-tone khaki uniforms.
Initially, the 2.0 TDI engine took flak because the general sentiment was that a two-litre capacity is only acceptable for milk and juice cartons. Yet it managed to prove its mettle over the years – partly thanks to campaigns like the Spirit of Africa challenge. Some tweaks were rolled out during its life-cycle. Most notable was the inclusion of an eight-speed automatic transmission.
Indeed, the Amarok is still a fairly sophisticated player – but the Hilux and Ranger have gained parity in the area of plushness. The interior offers smart trimmings, mildly echoing the ambience of a Touareg. The way it drives is similarly akin to an SUV. Tyre roar is minimal. It is not easily swayed by crosswinds and road imperfections. And that automatic gearbox is buttery smooth.
The ride seems to air on the firm side however. And the Amarok demands a substantial outlay. Our top-tier 2.0 BiTDI tester Highline 4MOTION automatic (132kW and 420Nm) comes in at R558 200. This is before factoring in optional kit such as an infotainment system with navigation (R30 150) and park distance control (R2150).
But in fairness, nothing is “cheap” at this higher echelon of the bakkie market. The Ford Ranger is another case in point. The 3.2 TDCi Wildtrak 4×4 automatic (147kW and 470Nm) goes for R596 900.
Although it has a far higher level of standard equipment than the Amarok. In addition to a cabin that feels more contemporary, with niceties such as a digital instrument panel and Ford’s SYNC 2 interface which comprises voice command. The driving experience is pleasant; easy to manoeuvre around town despite its chunky dimensions, with a compliant ride on the open road. Let us dwell on this aspect for a second. The ride quality is unequivocally superior to any of the contenders here.
We were mightily impressed by the deftness of the suspension, at quelling the inevitable bounciness that besets vehicles of this class. This Wildtrak version is the best representative of the Ranger line-up. Driving lesser models in the range reveals that the tenet of supreme refinement is not consistent throughout.
You get what you pay for, as the saying goes. While we are leveling criticism at the Ranger, we should also talk about that powertrain. The five-cylinder 3.2 TDCi might have the biggest displacement in this selection of bakkies. But it is not the fizziest of the lot and it is noisy. Trying to execute a quick overtaking move reveals an air of lethargy. It feels like some of the grunt is lost in the transfer of things.
The powertrain department is one of the areas in which Ranger’s perennial nemesis from Toyota outshone it. Competing here is the 2.8 GD-6 4×4 Raider (130kW and 420Nm) which costs R529 900. Our test unit sported the six-speed manual transmission. And for obvious reasons, this newest contender was the one all staffers were keenest to sample.
It did not disappoint. Of course, an automatic gearbox would have been ideal for this test. But the row-your-own version garnered praise for its easy clutch action and fluid shifts – aided by a rev-matching system, pretty much similar to the setup in a Nissan 370Z sports car. The driving position gained plaudits as the most car-like of the lot.
Many commented on how it felt akin to sitting in a Corolla, albeit a more butch variation. Given how far that sedan has come in terms of quality and plushness, this is by no means a criticism. No longer does the interior of the Hilux feel like it was built from excess plastics in a Tupperware factory.
Power from this unit was ample too, it is an effusive performer in all conditions and does its job with much less clatter and vibration than any offering here. Noise levels (or lack of) impressed us too. Once again, the Hilux was deemed to be decidedly quieter and less fatiguing on the open road. Indeed, Toyota has put in a considerable effort to bring the Hilux on par with the rest of the segment. We feel their efforts paid dividends in giving the product a contemporary feel. What about that aesthetic elephant in the room? Certainly, the styling of the model is a daring move – but it will spark conversation, which is something that could never be said of a Hilux before.
Leaving the best for last? Perhaps not, in the case of the Isuzu KB. It might have had the edge over some adversaries when it was launched in 2013. But it has failed to keep up with the developments in the genre.
If rigorous workhorse tasks in the outdoors constitute most of your use for a bakkie, then it could be a worth another look. Our KB 300 D-TEQ LX 4×4 automatic (130kW and 380Nm) seemed to be in its element sauntering over the high-grade obstacles at the ADA facility in Hartbeespoort. Naturally, its adeptness off-road results in a trade-off with its manners on the road.
And there is not much to be said about interior quality either. There are coarse plastics aplenty, flimsy bits and an overall utilitarian ambience to things. A touchscreen interface – in a bid to add modernity to things – looks more anachronistic.
The price does not help its cause either. At R563 500, you would have to be fiercely brand loyal to Isuzu to consider it over any of the other three here.
Naturally, every camp within the automotive fraternity holds the belief that their brand of choice is the best. Asking which bakkie is the best in South Africa would yield many different answers, for a multitude of reasons. And if Social Media is anything to go by, a debate on the subject will likely end in fisticuffs.
But as impartial observers without allegiances (sentimental or otherwise) to the above contenders, deeming an overall winner in this segment was not a difficult task. The criteria list was clear. A modern bakkie should comprise the tenets we appreciate in modern cars. They ought to be well-built, refined, spacious and safe, while providing the technology expected from a vehicle in 2016. Their powertrains should offer ample flexibility for all situations, as well as polished manners and (relative) frugality. And lastly, they must have their off-road faculties firmly intact.
The Isuzu is too agricultural to be deemed a skillful all-rounder. The Volkswagen Amarok is a competent performer, but it is pricey if you kit it to the level of the others. And perhaps they need another five years in the game to banish stigmas and cement the product as a bona fide outdoorsman, in addition to being a premium city truck.
Which brings us to the contentious matter. Toyota Hilux or Ford Ranger? As an encapsulation of the above virtues, the American manages a stellar job – particularly in Wildtrak guise. Among our staffers, it was the unanimous pick. But we should note that the margin is a small one, because there are a number of areas in which the Hilux comes out on top. The clincher in this case was ride quality: while Toyota did a good job at catch-up, Ranger still feels just a little more equal when it comes to deceiving the driver into thinking that he or she is driving an SUV. Let the backlash begin.
Derivative: 2.0 BiTDI Highline 4MOTION automatic
Price: R558 200
Engine: 1968cc, four-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 132kW at 4000rpm
Torque: 420Nm at 1750rpm
Acceleration: 10.9 seconds
Top speed: 179km/h
Claimed consumption: 8.3l/100km (Combined)
Claimed CO2: 219g/km
Derivative: 3.2 TDCi Wildtrak 4×4 automatic
Price: R596 900
Engine: 3198cc, five-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 147kW at 3000rpm
Torque: 470Nm between 1500-2750rpm
Top speed: Unavailable
Claimed consumption: 8.9l/100km (Combined)
Claimed CO2: 236g/km
Derivative: 2.8 GD-6 4×4 Raider manual
Price: R529 900
Engine: 2755cc, four-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 130kW at 3400rpm
Torque: 420Nm between 1400-2600rpm
Acceleration: 11.2 seconds
Top speed: 180km/h
Claimed consumption: 7.6l/100km (Combined)
Claimed CO2: 199g/km
Derivative: 300 D-TEQ LX 4×4 automatic
Price: R563 500
Engine: 2999cc, four-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power: 130kW at 3600rpm
Torque: 380Nm between 1800-2800rpm
Top speed: Unavailable
Claimed consumption: 7.9l/100km (Combined)
Claimed CO2: 208g/km
-Words by Brenwin Naidu, Bruce Fraser, Francois Oosthuizen, John Whittle & Kieran Rennie
-Pictures by Waldo Swiegers
-A special thanks to ADA for the use of their facility. Visit www.adasa.co.za for more